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BWW Reviews: Metáfora: Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía at City Center

Rubén Olmo and the company of Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía in Metáfora

photo by Miguel Angel Gonzalez

Written with Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore

The best way to approach a dance company lIke Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía is to establish in mind exactly what it is, and what it is not. That means we start with its artistic director, choreographer and resident star, Rubén Olmo. As a dancer trained in both classical ballet and flamenco dance traditions, Olmo, a native of Sevilla where the company is based, brings his own language of dance to bear in his work and that is reflected in the company's dancing. Olmo is not concerned with finding a label for what he does. The company is not just a showcase for traditional flamenco dancing because while Olmo is respectful of tradition he is focused on creating new forms and he lives fully in the present. Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía can then best be understood as a theatrical dance experience apart from the restrictive expectations of either traditional flamenco or classical ballet. This is a contemporary dance company that is firmly ingrained in flamenco, leavened with classical ballet and spiced by the unique theatrical sensibility of its artistic director.

Metáfora is a two part show, only the second of which is primarily a creation of Olmo. This is his first production for the company and it sends a clear signal of what the future brings for this company. The first part of the show is titled Suite Flamenca and it featured the more traditional roots of flamenco while the second part was an immersion into the world of Olmo's imagination. The men of the company danced powerfully in the Canela to open the show but were substantially upstaged by the women who followed them dancing the Cantiñas de Coral, a tribute to flamenco legend Matilde Coral. The piece was danced in traditional bata de cola dresses with long trains and mantones de Manila (shawls). The whipping of the mantones combined with the kicking of the trains is as traditional as one can possibly get and the women of the company danced with exuberance. Guest artist Pastora Galván joined the women and established that she was a true star by raising the flash of temperament and conviction that makes flamenco come alive with passion. She effortlessly stands apart in her ability to gather and release energy and tension.

A flamenco pas de deux, En Sueño, came third in the Suite Flamenca. Danced by soloists Eduardo Leal and Patricia Guerrero, this pas de deux is confusingly listed as being choreographed by Olmo, Leal and Guerrero. It does have, as its title suggests, a dreamlike quality and it is easy to see the balletic influence of Olmo's training with the beginnings of complex emotional narrative underlying the dancing. What it lacks is a language of partnering that is essential in a balletic pas de deux. What we see is mostly two dancers moving in tandem without enough touching. Leal is a graceful and sinuous dancer who looked at all times during the evening as though he was in his element and able to translate all the movement he was given into his own personal expression. Guerrero seemed less in her comfort zone here than she did elsewhere during the night.

When Pastora Galván returned to the stage for her solo turn, De los Reyes, the audience was ready. As a dancer and choreographer, Galván has much in common with her brother Israel who is another of the next wave of original flamenco visionaries out of Sevilla. The Galváns are a noted flamenco family (and childhood friends of Olmo) and this latest generation is breaking new ground as performing artists. Like her brother, Ms. Galván is not content to merely dance. She wants to take you somewhere.

In De los Reyes, a dance of her own creation, she is reaching for a higher level of expression that involves giving life to a swirling cast of characters. Galván has something to say beyond merely being a star attraction who relies on her personal magnetism to carry her performance. At times she was the campy preening diva, full of arrogant bombast and at other times she was playful and silly, as though she'd had one glass of wine too many. She is able to be regal one moment and, well... a little slutty the next. She has enormous expressive range and uses her braceo (arm movements) to express complexities of thought and emotion which establish her as an original artist in her own right. Every single thing she does is of interest and it frees her from the obligation to expend all her energy being technically impressive.

The full title of the second part of the evening is La Danza Como Metáfora del Pensamiento. Dance as a metaphor for thought is an idea of Nietzsche's that Olmo has turned into an extended expression of the power of dance to elevate the human spirit. It opened with Olmo dancing a solo against the striking background of vertical columns of light and swirling fog. As a solo artist, Olmo is never less than compelling and original. Watching him perform his own particular idiom of fused flamenco and classical ballet is riveting.

When he was joined onstage by the rest of the company, Olmo danced around and through them as if he was conjuring the ballet into existence. This is not balletic Spanish character dancing as seen in countless productions of Don Quijote. That is merely ballet with flamenco mannerisms and attitude. What Olmo is doing doesn't have a precedent. He whips through pirouettes, leaps and staccato rhythms that leave one in a constant state of anticipation as to what he might do next. This is something new and as yet unimagined. It feels full of potential and ready to explode.

One wonders why this hasn't existed before. Has no other artist ever been able to achieve this level of mastery of both classical ballet and flamenco? Is this the first time that such a new idea has been able to find an audience? What about the ability of the rest of the company to follow where Olmo is leading? That is the challenge that will face this company during Olmo's tenure. They are going to have to become fluent in an entirely new dance language that is still being invented.

In the movements that followed his solo, Olmo effectively used the company as a corps de ballet, moving them on and off stage in interesting patterns while giving them plenty of work to do. He has given solos to many of the dancers that give them the opportunity to shine. Some of the solos were rooted in flamenco but others were pushing the boundaries into Olmo's own new language of dance. Several of the dancers are already showing that they are prepared to meet these challenges by combining balletic forms with flamenco steps and it will be interesting to see how the company grows into this new identity. It is clear that several of them have been trained in ballet to some extent, especially among the men. Eduardo Leal, for example, figures to greatly benefit from working with Olmo as his natural fluidity suits this new vocabulary perfectly.

The only thing that didn't feel right in this piece was the Caminante danced by guest artist Rocío Molina. She choreographed her own solo for this piece and it didn't fit with the rest of the ballet in style or character. Molina is an established star with a commanding physical presence but this simply did not mesh with the rest. It would have been more effective as a stand-alone solo.

Olmo's body of work to this point suggests that we are witnessing the emergence of an important new artist who is continually questing for new ways to express his ideas. There are incredibly few visionary artists in any genre who are able to do more than build incrementally on the work of their predecessors and Olmo is one of them. Beginning with his years as a principal dancer in the Ballet Nacional de España and through his first solo efforts, Olmo's rarity has become ever more apparent. He is now beginning a new adventure with a company of his own to experiment on and he has achieved solid success with his Metáfora. Make no mistake, there will be conservative dancegoers and revanchist critics who are unable to understand this new work. They will complain that it is not real flamenco and not ballet either. Without a guidebook to tell them what to think they will be incapable of talking about it sensibly. Pay them no mind because Olmo's choreography is an experience you can't get anywhere else. There is an assumption of risk in hiring Olmo for the job of directing this company because he is by nature a risk taker. He will continually push the boundaries of what is accepted and what is expected. Some of it will be brilliant and some of it will fail but there will never be any shortage of things to talk about. Sevilla is going to be an important source of new ideas in the coming years because Rubén Olmo is one of the most original thinkers in the dance world today.

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